The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas

by Paul Theroux

Paperback, 1979




Mariner Books, (1979)


An account of Theroux's trip by train from Boston to Bogota, Columbia.

Media reviews

"The Old Patagonian Express" is the name of the last train that Theroux takes as he reaches the Patagonian desert. Written in the late seventies, many of the political realities he describes are outdated, but it is still a descriptive narrative of a most unusual journey. It is a story of how to
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get from here to there and everything that is entailed with it. The journey, with all its hardships, is part of the travel. In the case of the maxim, it is not the destination, but the journey that counts, this is what this book is about. It stays true to its message and clear about why it was undertaken, and in this story of how to get from here to there, Paul Theroux is a master storyteller.
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1 more
If this sequel- it must be called that- is not so delightful as "The Great Railway Bazaar," the fault is as much geography's as Theroux's. Europe and Asia are a richer venue for this sort of thing than Latin America, which by contrast lacks character, deep literary and historical associations, and
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variety. For anyone experienced with Europe, it is desperately boring. Squalor in Mexico is identical to squalor in El Salvador; the ghastly Mexican town Papaloapan is too much like the horrible Costa Rican town Limon, 600 miles farther south... In Buenos Aires Theroux is thoroughly primed to play Boswell to Borges's Johnson, and the resulting conversations constitute a delightful climax, a triumphant overflow of civility and intelligence after all the brutality and stupidity... But except for the Borges episode, the reader gets little relief from the horrors and boredom. He misses the sheer joy of the anomalous, which surfaced frequently in "The Great Railway Bazaar." Here Theroux is exhausted. Outraged by Latin America, he picks quarrels, depicts himself winning arguments, allows his liberal moral superiority to grow strident. He seems to think we have to be told that people should not starve or live in filth. Even though he knows he's doing these things ("I was sick of lecturing people on disorder"), he can't help himself, and sometimes the unpleasant effect threatens the reader's pleasure in Theroux's sharp eye, which is capable of such shrewd perceptions: he notices that an American on the train is wearing "the sort of woolen plaid forester's shirt that graduate students in state universities especially favor"; that in Peru "the Indians have a broad-based look, like chess pieces"; that the terrain outside the train window, at one low point, looks like a "world of kitty litter"; and that in the dark, "in one field, five white cows were as luminous as laundry."
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User reviews

LibraryThing member meowpossum
The weather is always too hot, too cold, or too rainy; the trains are all crowded, late, rackety, and uncomfortable. Theroux crankily endures plague-carrying rats, obnoxious fellow travellers, altitude sickness, flea-bag accomodations, political unrest and tedium, making this a terrific,
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schadenfreudish read from the comfort of your own home (but fairly off-putting if you are actually contemplating any kind of train journey or travel through Central or South America.)
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LibraryThing member Mendoza
Theroux takes a facinating journey through the Americas. I think this is one of his best train trips and the travelogue is my favourite.

Having the ability to travel without a schedule he has the time and chance to observe his fellow passengers from the far northeastern tip of the US through the
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southern tip of South America. And he is a master at it.
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LibraryThing member bherner
Boston to Patagonia via train. Now, c'mon, you gotta admit that's intrigueing. Theroux is his usual grumpy-but-good-hearted self during his trip. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member skf
I was disappointed by this book as it wasn't so much a description of where he went but who he talked to. (I've even heard doubt that his conversations are all true.) What he did mention about the places he went was all complaints. I suppose I took offense because I have lived in or near many of
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those places for more than 20 years. I've traveled in the opposite direction he did from Buenos Aires to Quito by bus and had a fantastic trip--even with 3 teenagers along! The two train rides I've had, he missed due to strikes in Peru. We experiences strikes, too, but found it an adventure! Perhaps he should have taken his wife and children along and would have enjoyed it more than leaving them behind for three months.

I must say though, there is no doubt he is an excellent writer. Wish I could think of similes like he does!
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LibraryThing member Don1
One of Theroux's classics. This is journal of his train travel in South America.
LibraryThing member secordman
The best of Theroux's travel books. Starting in Boston and ending in Patagonia, Theroux attempts to travel the length of the Americas by rail. Every page has some wonderful writing, with Theroux's jaundiced observations as sharp as ever.
LibraryThing member patrisha
I've been finished with this book for over a month now and have been slowly ... very slowly ... writing down my thoughts on it. If you're a bottom line man, and I know at heart, you are :), Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express is a good read. For what makes it worth a look, read on.

I started
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to read Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas (Mariner 1979) because I immediately liked his voice as a writer. Once into the book, I was charmed by Theroux's descriptions, by his occasional grumpiness, and by his rather sardonic wit, so I suggested the book to a couple of my friends. One friend read the first page of the introduction and finding Theroux pretentious, opted to put it back down again. I know the other friend at least started to read the book, but I haven't heard from her since, despite my having left a couple of messages for her, leading me to imagine that she'd either hopped a train herself or really hated Theroux and was no longer speaking to me (I've since learned that she's been in New York and Pittsburgh, which is a whole 'nother story).
As for the friend who put the book down, I've read reviews of Theroux that allude to a pretentious tone or attitude, but after completing The Old Patagonian Express and getting about half way through The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Theroux's work that preceded Patagonia by 4 years, I haven't found anything that I would interpret as overly-affected. At times the division between culture and/or language is obvious and Theroux sometimes becomes a kind of interpreter of the division, during which points, I suppose, he could be seen as committing the crime he describes in the introduction that made my friend put the book down. The objectionable bit was Theroux's dismissal of the way some travel narrators paint themselves as heroes of a "[q]uest … full of liberties." But then again, I couldn't say if there are liberties in Theroux's book—what I have found, primarily, is a writer who looks to the culture to inform and explain the landscape before him as well as someone who finds amusement in the absurd.
In one succinct passage, Theroux describes his border crossing from Guatemala to El Salvador: "The border was a shed. A boy in his sports shirt stamped my passport and demanded money. He asked me if I was carrying any drugs. I said no. What do I do now? I asked him. You go up the road, he said. There you will find another house. That is El Salvador" (127). It is while he is in El Salvador that Theroux goes to a football match between El Salvador and Mexico, during which he approaches his depiction of the match and its 45,000 spectators as " a model of Salvadorean society," complete with the acts of frustration and contempt committed at every level: national, social and individual. At another point, while in Bogatá, Theroux stops to purchase a poster, his choices ranging from posters of political figures whose visages seem to be a blend of Bolívar, Christ, and Che Guevara to posters of Hollywood movie stars to posters of cartoon characters. Theroux describes his choice as "the best of the bunch. It showed Christ on the cross, but he had managed to pull his hand away from one nail, and still hanging crucified but with his free arm around the shoulder of a praying guerrilla fighter, Christ was saying, 'I also was persecuted, my determined guerrilla'" (249).

By far, my favorite section of the book, in a book with many highly enjoyable sections, was Theroux's time in Buenes Aires during which he is summoned to meet and subsequently spends several days visiting with and reading to Jorge Luis Borges, who Theroux says has "the fussy precision of a chemist" (364). Through the narrative of his experiences, for me, Theroux delivers on what he says is his purpose in traveling and in writing about traveling: he delivers a book that gives pleasure; it is something to enjoy.
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LibraryThing member hennis
One of the best travel books I have ever read. Paul Theroux is just a great writer. Nice account of his journey, which was not at all a pleasant holiday, more the contrary. I will certainly read another book by him.
LibraryThing member waldhaus1
More about the countries between Patagonia and Boston than Patagonia. Still an interesting read. Theroux's usual dour wit.
LibraryThing member Smiley
I think this is one of Theroux's best travel books and my personal favorite.
LibraryThing member christinejoseph
Medford to tip of South America by train – great travel book

Beginning his journey in Boston, where he boarded the subway commuter train, and catching trains of all kinds on the way, Paul Theroux tells of his voyage from ice-bound Massachusetts and Illinois to the arid plateau of Argentina's most
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southerly tip. Sweating and shivering by turns as the temperature and altitude shoot up and down, thrown in with the appalling Mr. Thornberry in Limon and reading nightly to the blind writer, Borges, in Buenos Aires, Theroux vividly evokes the contrasts of a journey to the end of the line.
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LibraryThing member theonearmedcrab
I am not a great fan of Paul Theroux, and make no exception for “The Old Patagonian Express” (1979), the account of his journey, as much as possible by train, from Boston south to the Argentine Patagonia. His travel accounts are more about himself than about the places he encounters, and if he
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observes what happens around him at all, his comments are often somewhat condescending. You wonder why he travels at all.

The Argentinean part of the book covers the last 90 of 430 pages, and is mostly of interest because it describes the train travel from the Bolivian border to Buenos Aires, and then on to Esquel in Patagonia, in trains that have long ceased to operate – except for a small narrow gauge circuit outside Esquel, which is being run as a tourist attraction, these days.
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LibraryThing member jkdavies
In the end, I had to rush through this book in order to finish it before I left the hotel... which probably did it a disservice.
On the one hand, it was a fairly meandering read with not so much going on, and I certainly felt the peculiar boredom of travelling somewhere new, for the first time, and
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not even caring to look up from your book, which Paul Theroux captured well.
On the other hand, it never got above a "sto gap" read for me, hence 3 stars...
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LibraryThing member sarcher
Suffers due to the nature of the railway in the Americas - incomplete, oriented east west in many nations. Works anyways, mostly because I have so little context for these areas of the world so any exposure is interesting.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
A brilliant book - Theroux travelled from Boston to Patagonia, mostly by train, and wrote about his experiences in this classic of the travel writing genre.
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
perfect in its imperfection the book contained all three facets of travel writing. Personal insight and experience, during the trip, cultural and historic descriptions of the areas passed through, and descriptions of the places and people he met. PT writes well and showed a good sense of place. He
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did get pissy and woe is me at times but that is travel. I enjoyed his meeting w Borges and his descriptions of New England.
Look forward to the next one.
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LibraryThing member StuartW
A most wonderful read. The author makes the mundane interesting. Its a book I often take along when I travel.
LibraryThing member mjspear
Always enjoy a good travelogue from Paul Theroux. This one is enhanced by his evident fluency in Spanish and --sadly-- the dire conditions in Central America. The soccer game in El Salvador alone is worth reading.


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